Gary Stein: Medical marijuana amendment: Forced choices or freedom to treat?

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  • Gary Stein
  • August 20, 2014

I have previously written that I support Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that may finally bring medical marijuana (MMJ) to the state of Florida. It is because there are people in my life for whom I care deeply that would benefit from it. Not to get them stoned, but to give them a greater quality of life or even save their lives.

Time after time, I cringe when I see all the various forms of public media having ???pun-gasms,??? utilizing every opportunity to incorporate the words ???high,??? ???buzz,??? ???joint,??? ???pot??? ???weed??? and the plethora of terms associated with recreational cannabis use in their headlines.

Ladies and gentlemen of the news media, you???ve had your fun. It???s time to get serious.

One of the people mentioned in my previous article was my mother, who was dealing with Stage 4 breast cancer. When she got the diagnosis the oncologist was reluctant to put her through drip chemotherapy or surgery, so she got a myriad of medications to slow the progression of the cancer in the hope of giving her a chance.

Every day I would get a call from her complaining about the side effects of the meds she was being given. She didn???t say it, but I knew that it was highly possible that the cancer was getting ready or already beginning to spread, so I set out for a solution that her oncologist didn???t have in his black bag or wouldn???t consider.

There are a number of studies of medications derived from cannabis that have shown some promise in treating cancer. Not much in this country, of course. You have very little chance of doing research with cannabis, which was labeled a Schedule 1 substance (deemed without any medical value), in 1971 utilizing the federal Controlled Substance Act (CSA).

One cannabinoid med is called ???Phoenix???s Tears??? or ???Simpson???s oil.??? It was developed in Canada by Frank Simpson, a grower, scientist and visionary profiled in a documentary called ???Race from the Cure: Race 2 the Cure.???

Since she lived in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, I checked out the Michigan MMJ laws. Unfortunately, the Michigan legislature slapped together a half-baked law that makes MMJ legal, but not dispensaries. According to the rules of the statute, you can grow up to 12 plants in your home (if you can gain the expertise and have the money to do it right) but you can???t go to a knowledgeable dispensary to get the product you need. The edge-of-the-law workaround was to make dispensaries quasi-legal by local law, specifically in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Many potential shops were summarily shut down, so a smattering of ???medical collectives,??? unregulated by the state, are the only path.

I made a connection to a collective in Roseville, just east of her house by about 15 miles, and set out to take her there to get her MMJ identification card and subsequent delivery of product.

Then a problem arose. She went to the Chicago area to visit my sister, and fell ill while still there, and was hospitalized and subsequently brought to a rehab facility. I could have gotten the product to her in Michigan, but in Illinois, her access would be blocked because she was not a resident of that state.

That posed a moral and legal dilemma for me. The path to getting her a MMJ ID and then getting her the oil would require someone such as me to cross state lines to break a federal law, as well as the laws of Michigan and Illinois.

What would you do to save the life of someone you love? The same dilemma with different variations exists across Florida and the nation for families with children that have intractable epilepsy, MS, cancer and other disorders where relief is just one sane state and/or federal law away.

Then fate or divine intervention took that choice out of my hands. My mother knew what I planned to do. We had discussed it on the phone when she was still in Michigan or talking about when she got back there. But, just after I testified at the workshop on the Charlotte???s Web bill rules on August 1 with her in mind, her health took a turn for the worst. A new CAT scan showed massive amounts of metastasized cancer. Her pain was becoming so intense that she refused any more food or treatment including oral chemo and was put into hospice for palliative care. They made her ???comfortable??? with large doses of fentanyl and morphine, and she died apparently unconscious in only 24 hours. She had shielded me from making a forced choice.

I was in a plane, delayed by bad weather, circling O???Hare airport when she took her last breath.

I didn???t have to make the choice that so many people have had to consider, but our current laws force that choice to be made. Many parents whose kids have that intractable epilepsy and over 100 seizures each day had seriously considered leaving Florida for Colorado, regardless of the cost to the family.

Highly conservative Florida legislators, including last session???s Senate President Don Gaetz, have admitted to finding the means to get marijuana to a dying friend, just as John Morgan did for his father.

Time is the greatest enemy of those who are gravely ill, so the time it took it set up the delivery to her may have been too much. Just as the time it takes legislators to approve and implement a new law, or the time it takes the FDA to approve a new drug may run out the clock for so many more people. So Time forces choices to be made, as well.

Until the Florida law passes via Amendment 2 and it is fully implemented or until a new federal law trumps the crazy-quilt patchwork of state laws, forced choices will be made.

Which begs the two questions: ???What do you think I would have done???? and, more importantly, ???What would you have done????

Gary Stein, MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a health advocate and activist and blogger for the Huffington Post. Column courtesy of Context Florida.